Goodbye, Gucci Grace!
Known for her extravagance, the Zimbabwean first lady’s hunger for power sealed her political demise and that of her husband
How has the downfall of Robert Mugabe — at 93 the world’s longest-serving leader and the only one Zimbabwe has known since its independence in 1980 — finally come to pass? Thanks to his younger wife, known throughout the country as “Gucci Grace”, the First Shopper. Forty-one years his junior, she has been his Lady Macbeth, spending extravagantly, ruthlessly trampling on adversaries, and fixated with power. Grace came from humble origins, born in Benoni to Zimbabwean migrant working parents and raised in the Zimbabwean farming town of Chivhu, where she was educated at a missionary school before going to secretarial college. But things soon changed.
Mugabe married his second wife in 1996 in a lavish wedding attended by Nelson Mandela and, for a while, she played the role of quiescent spouse, busying herself with some serious kleptocratic wealth accumulation — something the fairly frugal Mugabe hadn’t been known for. She set about organising the construction of a huge presidential villa in 2003, at a then estimated expense of £6-million. The 1ha estate, believed to include 25 bedrooms and multiple spas, was dubbed Graceland by Zimbabweans.
She went on frequent shopping trips abroad, especially to Singapore, where her husband went for medical treatment, or to New York for the UN General Assembly, returning with trunks bulging with bling. On one visit to Paris, she was reported to have spent £75 000 in designer stores. Before 2002, when the pair were banned from travel in Europe due to human rights violations, her favourite destination was Harrods in London.
After one trip, when she stayed in a suite at Claridges, she was asked how she could justify spending so much on designer shoes while people starved. “I have very narrow feet, so I can only wear Ferragamo,” she explained.
When her husband launched his takeover of white-owned commercial farms in 2000, Grace seized some prize properties in the lush countryside of Mazowe, near Harare. There, she built a state-of-the-art dairy and a private game reserve. In 2007, she reportedly finalised building work on a second palatial mansion, at a cost of £20-million. But still she stayed mostly in her husband’s shadow.
It was only as he began to sink into his dotage that her political ambitions stirred. He had dominated the ruling party, Zanu-PF, for so long that it had morphed into a personality cult, one that he ruled as his personal fiefdom. And, as is so often the case with autocrats, he couldn’t bear to make plans for his own succession, as this would entail contemplating his own mortality. Grace began to eye the top job. How better to assure the family’s status than to keep the seat at the head of the table?
She bears little resemblance to his first wife, the much-loved Sally, a Ghanaian who was dubbed “Amai” (mother). Mugabe first noticed Grace as he strolled through the typing pool at State House — they were both married at the time. Sally was ill. Grace was then wed to a Zimbabwean air force officer, Stanley Goreraza, who Mugabe sent off to China as defence attaché. Mugabe fathered two children with his mistress, which was kept secret from the people of Zimbabwe, before his wife died in 1992, and a third afterwards. With Sally out of the way, the pair married.
There was a problem with Grace’s intended ascension to the throne, however: she was too young to have played a role in the war for independence, so she had no liberation credentials. Grace thought that her status as Mugabe’s wife would trump this. To make herself more substantial a figure, in 2014 she achieved what must be the world’s fastest PhD, in just two months, from the University of Zimbabwe. She was not required to defend her thesis, which is mysteriously unavailable in the university’s library.
But her instant doctorate wasn’t enough to fix her other image problem — her temper. She recently bought a 100ct diamond ring for her husband, worth £1.1-million (about R20.4-million), but is now suing the Lebanese dealer who sold it to her, claiming the ring was substandard. The dealer had to flee her wrath. In Hong Kong, she famously assaulted a journalist who was following her on a visit there.
Her spoilt progeny have only exacerbated her image problem: her sons have been living the high life in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, hanging out with their entourages at expensive nightclubs, drinking top-shelf champagne. They often boast of their lavish lives on Instagram — one, Bellarmine, last week posted a picture of his new watch with the caption “$60 000 [R840 000] on the wrist when your daddy run the whole country ya know!!!”, later uploading a video to Snapchat of himself pouring champagne over the band. In 2015, the average Zimbabwean was living on just over £2 a day. A little over three months ago, when 52-year-old Grace visited her sons in a Johannesburg hotel, she flew into a rage upon finding them entertaining a young model. With her bodyguards looking on, Grace thrashed the girl with an extension cord, cutting her face so badly that she needed stitches. Facing assault charges, and to avoid a major international incident, Grace was hustled out of South Africa under diplomatic immunity.
Poisoned ice cream
In the meantime, she had parachuted her way into the top of the party, seeing off the vicepresident, Joice Mujuru, who Grace got her husband to fire for allegedly plotting to overthrow him. She then ascended to the head of Zanu-PF Women’s League, touring the country in a vehicle emblazoned with her own face.
Grace’s husband has been, for some time, on his last legs — throughout this year, photos have appeared in the press of him nodding off in meetings and at rallies. And when he last spoke at the UN his legs were so unsteady he had to hold on to chair backs on his way to the podium.
To others in Zanu-PF it seemed Grace was now in control and determined to succeed him. Her last remaining obstacle was the other vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had been Mugabe’s intelligence chief during the war for independence. When she was heckled at a public rally at the beginning of this month by a few of his supporters, she went ballistic, publicly accusing him of plotting a coup.
Mnangagwa then accused Grace’s faction of trying to kill him off with a poisoned ice cream. He began vomiting copiously and had to be airlifted to South Africa for treatment; by his return, Grace had co-opted her husband to join in the attacks. Last week, Mnangagwa was fired and ousted from the party, and had to flee in fear of his life.
But Grace had failed to secure the support of the army. Whatever transition arrangement is negotiated for Mugabe’s political demise, the humiliation of his wife is now complete. It was her fatal overreach that brought the end upon him.
‘I have very narrow feet, so I can only wear Ferragamo’ Grace Mugabe Justifying her spending on designer shoes
VAULTING AMBITION Grace Mugabe, wife of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and head of the Zanu-PF Women’s League, addresses a Zanu-PF rally in Bulawayo in July.